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International Socialist Review, Winter 1963


A. Sadi

“Arab Socialism” and
the Nasserite National Movement


From International Socialist Review, Vol.24 No.2, Spring 1963, pp.48-51.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A. Sadi, who appears in our columns for the first time, is an Arab socialist with many decades experience in the revolutionary movement. Although we do not necessarily agree with all that he says, we think that our readers will find his article to be an instructive study of one of the most puzzling features of politics in a strife-torn area that is now much in the news.

* * *

“Arab socialism” is a new ideological creature born only several years ago in the minds of some Arab petty-bourgeois intellectuals, especially in Syria. It has recently been elaborated and adopted as an official ideology by the Arab national movement led by Abd el Nasser as an “alternative” to communism.

Right from the end of the second world war, an uninterrupted series of mass national liberation movements has drawn the colonies and semicolonies, one after another, into a process of permanent revolution. The great successes achieved by the Soviet Union and the other workers states, together with the victory of the Chinese Revolution, have awakened the masses of the colonial countries to consciousness of their wretched material, moral and cultural condition. It has been proved to them that the only way to overcome their misery, low standard of living and low cultural level is the way of socialism.

Socialism, therefore, has become the slogan of the masses and the catchword of every party or movement trying to win the masses in every underdeveloped country But the policy of the Stalinist parties in the Arab world, which has always been to zigzag in accordance with the diplomatic interests of the ruling bureaucracy in the Soviet Union; and especially the attitude adopted by these parties – in the wake of the Soviet government – in such situations as the Palestinian war has antagonized the Arab masses, particularly the socialist-minded intellectuals who used to rally around these parties. Disappointed over the Stalinist parties and over the Soviet Union, these intellectuals began a search for a “new god” – for a kind of socialism independent of the policies and influence of the Soviet Union. The result was a hash of ideas which came to be known as “Arab socialism.”

The Nasser Coup

Nasser’s coup d’état in 1952 came at the climax of a great revolutionary upsurge in the Arab world, especially in Egypt. A mighty wave of workers strikes and peasant revolts and upheavals, together wth the intensification of guerrilla war against the British occupation forces in the Suez Canal zone, shook Farouk’s rule to its very foundations. The monarchy could no longer maintain its hold on the people. Egypt stood on the verge of social revolution. The Palace’s last attempt at self-defense was the burning of Cairo on January 24, 1952. But this attempt, intended to demoralize the mass movement and discredit the Wafd government which was responding to the mass pressure, did not save the situation for the throne and its feudal allies. The burning of Cairo was used, indeed, as a pretext to dismiss the Wafd government and to form in its stead a new government which “would not submit to national feelings” and mass pressure. But this new government was born paralyzed. Instead of restoring “law and order,” it stood impotent in the face of the mounting revolutionary wave. The crisis was aggravated. In these circumstances, Nasser and his colleagues launched their coup. Without a single shot, Farouk’s rule crumbled like a house of cards.

Nasser’s military coup was in fact a desperate attempt to prevent a real people’s revolution, which could have developed into a proletarian revolution, and to curb the masses and prevent them from influencing the development of events.

The leaders of the coup, by virtue of their military education and military mentality, never believed in the masses. Indeed, from the beginning they have suspected the people and have always been afraid of them. Their first act after seizing power was to prohibit strikes and demonstrations. When, immediately after the coup, the textile workers in Alexandria declared a strike, it was broken by police and military force and two of the leaders were put to death.

Faith in Militarism

In his book The Philosophy of Revolution Abd el Nasser says, “Throughout my life I have had faith in militarism” – and so have his colleagues. They want “discipline” and submission to orders, and were shocked by the activity of the masses. They crushed it by the ruthless measures of military dictatorship. In the same book, Abd el Nasser says, “We needed discipline but found chaos behind our lines. We needed unity but found dissensions.”

It is true that Abd el Nasser and his colleagues, when launching their coup, had an aim. But it was very vague. They felt the need for political and social reform but had no program. Having seized power, they were faced by a mass of complicated political and social problems to which they had never given thought and before which they stood confused and completely impotent. They even began to regret their “rashness” and “folly” in seizing power. Abd el Nasser had to “confess that after July 23 I suffered fits in which I accused myself, my colleagues and the rest of the army of the rashness and folly we committed on July 23.” He admits that “the situation caused me a depressing psychological crisis. But later experience and reflection, and the true significance I derived from them, lightened the reaction of the crisis upon me.” Only then did he come to the conclusion “that we are at present in the throes of two revolutions and not one ... One political in which [every nation] recovers its right to self-government from an imposed despot or an aggressive army occupying its territory without its consent. The second revolution is social, in which the classes of society would struggle against each other until justice for all countrymen has been gained and conditions have become stable.”

Rulers Fear Masses

Accordingly the monarchy was abolished and an agrarian reform was decreed. But abolishing the monarchy did not bring the masses “self-government.” Even bourgeois democratic rights and liberties were not granted. On the contrary, a firm military dictatorship was established. Political parties were outlawed and strikes and demonstrations were strictly forbidden. The new rulers’ fear of the masses never waned. The agrarian reform was limited and on a very narrow scale, but it did improve somewhat the lot of a considerable portion of the peasantry and helped win them to the new regime. The compensation paid to the landowners was expected by the new rulers to be invested in industry, thus helping to industrialize the country. But the landowners, by force of tradition and lack of experience and hope of big profits in industry, invested their new capital in real estate instead. The agrarian reform, however, has broken the backbone of the feudal class and put an end to their influence on the political and economic life of the country.

Having failed in drawing private capital into industry, the new regime began to depend on state funds to build new industrial enterprises, and a kind of state control and planning was established.

In foreign policy the new rulers tried at the beginning to reach an understanding and modus vivendi with Britain and the United States, relying on their aid. But the United States refusal to supply arms with which to meet Israel’s continual raids forced Abd el Nasser to turn to the workers states for arms. These new friendly relations aroused the rage of American and British imperialism. In insulting terms, both the United States and Great Britain withdrew their offer to help Egypt build the High Dam at Aswan. Abd el Nasser responded immediately by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company. This touched off the Suez crisis which ended with the Anglo-French attack on Egypt with the help of Israel. The help given by the Soviet Union to Egypt during the crisis raised the prestige of the Soviet Union and the Communist parties in the whole Arab world.

Arab Unity Slogan

At the same time the imperialist attack on Egypt aroused Arab national feelings and the solidarity of the masses in all Arab countries. “Arab Unity” became the general slogan.

In Syria the Communists were gathering strength and influence. This aroused the fear of the weak Syrian bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeois Ba’athists, who were virtually in power in Syria at the time. They hastened to unite with Egypt in order to win the help of the strong Egyptian bourgeoisie against the Communists. The Communists stood against the current and opposed unity.

Then came the revolution in Iraq at a time when the prestige of Abd el Nasser was at its highest. He was recognized as the leader of the whole Arab national movement against imperialism and for national unity and social reform. The Ba’athists in Iraq led the movement for unity with Egypt. But the Communists, who were the strongest party in Iraq and who controlled the trade unions, the peasant committees, the organizations of the intellectuals, and the militia, helped Kassem crush the Ba’athists and the movement for national unity.

This attitude of the Communists against national unity in Syria and Iraq turned the feelings of the masses against them and they began to lose ground. In Iraq, after crushing the Ba’athists, Kassem turned against the Communists and drove them, underground. In Syria they lost much of their influence in the working class, and many of their intellectuals left the party to begin co-operating with Nasser. When Nasser’s social reforms antagonized the landowners and a section of the bourgeoisie in Syria, the Communists made a front with the most reactionary elements there. Nasser utilized the occasion to launch a witch-hunt against them, including all means of propaganda and police terror. At the same time he compromised with the reactionary elements, even well-known imperialist agents, to win them against the Communists.

The union between Egypt and Syria was, naturally, to the advantage of the Egyptian bourgeoisie, who were the stronger. Their profits expanded and increased relative to those of the Syrian national bourgeoisie. This antagonized the latter, while Nasser’s compromises and cooperation with the most reactionary elements and his dictatorial methods in monopolizing power brought a rift between him and the Ba’athists.

The economic and social measures taken by Nasser in Egypt and Syria proved to be insufficient. Private initiative did not contribute to the development of the national economy. The new reforms helped to enrich many of the Egyptian bourgeoisie. Capital began to concentrate in the hands of a few millionaires. The division of the national income in favor of the capitalists rose from sixty-eight per cent before industrialization to seventy-two percent in 1961. But still they did not invest in industry. They all turned to trade and real estate where big profits are sure. The big landowners used every means to evade the agrarian reform laws.

All this forced Nasser to take new and more drastic measures. On July 20, 1961, he issued decrees nationalizing the banks and insurance companies. He also decreed the participation of the state in a number of private industrial enterprises. The maximum property allowed in land was decreased from 200 to 100 acres.

The Syrian bourgeoisie, whose domestic position had been bolstered through the co-operation of the Communists and a section of the Ba’athists and through Nasser’s compromises with the extreme right, were shocked by these measures. They used the influence they had won in the army to launch a coup against the Nasserite rule, separating Syria from Egypt.

* * *

THE separation of Syria from Egypt came like a bolt from the blue to Nasser. It drove him to review his whole past policies. It opened his eyes to the intrigues and conspiracies of the landowners, the big comprador bourgeoisie and imperialist agents, against his rule. He felt the danger in Egypt itself and began to look for support among the people. He realized, he said, that “ages of suffering and hope finally gave shape to the objectives of the Arab struggle. These objectives which are a true expression of Arab national conscience are freedom, socialism, unity.” He admitted that a revolution “is not the work of one individual” and that the “value of a revolution lies in its degree of popularity, in the extent to which it is an expression of the vast masses, in the extent to which it mobilizes their forces to rebuild the future, and also in the extent to which it enables these masses to impose their will on life.” He also recognized that “work aimed at expanding the base of national wealth can never be left to the haphazard ways of exploitive private capital” and that “the socialist solution is the only way out to economic and social progress.”

Nasser’s National Charter

On these bases he intensified his measures of nationalization and called for a “National Congress of Popular Powers” which was held May 21, 1962. At the inaugural session, Abd el Nasser presented a “National Charter” which was meant to be a “scientific” program for “Arab socialism” and which declared that “the major economic and social problems confronting our people at present must be resolved on a scientific basis” and “revolutionary action should be scientific.” The charter also states:

“Our immediate aim is to do away with exploitation, and to make possible the exercise of the natural right to have an equal opportunity, to dissolve class distinctions and to end the domination of one class and hence remove the clash between classes which constitutes a threat to the freedom of the individual citizen, and even to the freedom of the whole of the country, by violating the rights of the people which creates the chance of exposing the country to the lurking dangers of foreign forces vigilantly on the lookout to drag it into the arena of cold war and make of it its battlefield and of its people fodder for their guns. The removal of the clash between classes which arises out of interests that can never be reconciled, between those who exercise exploitation and those crushed by exploitation in the past society, cannot overnight lead to the dissolution of all class distinctions or lead to social freedom and true democracy.

“Yet, the removal of the clash between classes makes it possible, by eliminating the exploiting class, to dissolve peacefully class distinctions, and to open the grates for democratic exchange which brings the whole society near the age of true freedom.”

Let us see now how this aim of “doing away with exploitation” and the “ending of the domination of one class” can be achieved on a “scientific basis,” as conceived by the authors of the Charter.

Some Cogent Questions

While they admit the necessity of “eliminating the exploiting class,” they speak of “dissolving peacefully class distinctions,” and state that the “Egyptian people refused the dictatorship of any class.” But how can this exploiting class be eliminated? Do the authors of the Charter believe that this class will renounce exploitation voluntarily for the benefit of that Utopian free society which they envisage? And if, in the name of the Egyptian people, they reject the dictatorship of any class, for what purpose, then, is their state? Is it necessary to prove now what history itself has demonstrated that every state has been the product of class struggle and that its role always is to defend the interests of the exploiting class against the exploited classes? Every state has been the instrument of the dictatorship of a class. Without the class dictatorship of the proletariat, the exploiting class cannot be eliminated.

However, in an article Arab Socialism and Communism in a special issue of the Egyptian review The Scribe, an expounder of the Charter rejects class struggle altogether. “We do not believe in the necessity of class struggle,” he says, “or in the supremacy of one class over the others.” He believes that “this class struggle can actually be checked even in the capitalist regimes of the Western world” and that “the American worker or that of Western Europe has succeeded in acquiring a multitude of rights by more or less peaceful means and has attained a constantly improved standard of living.” From this he draws the conclusion that “the class struggle has ceased to be a necessity in order for the proletariat to gain its rights and to attain a decent standard of living which constantly improves.”

But how did the proletariat of these highly developed capitalist countries attain their “decent standard of living” if not by class struggle? And has class struggle really ceased to be a necessity in these countries? Then what are the strikes declared so frequently by the working class in the USA and the European countries if not an expression of class struggle? Moreover, has class exploitation ended in the West? Does the attainment of a “decent standard of living” constitute socialism? Does it end class exploitation? According to the author of the article, the answer is, “Yes.” He says, “It is socialism which is predominant in these countries.” From this one must draw the conclusion that the “Arab socialism” in the minds of the authors and exponents of the Charter is nothing but modern capitalism.

Some Obvious Contradictions

This conclusion is reinforced by the fact that the Charter recognizes the “existence of a private sector that would, without exploitation, participate in the development within the framework of the over-all plan.” Nationalization, according to the Charter, “is not a blow to the individual initiative” but “rather a guarantee to an expansion of the range of general interest.”

“The great importance attached to the role of the public sector,” the Charter states, “cannot do away with the existence of the private sector. The private sector has its effective role in the development plan. It must be protected to fulfill that part.” All that is “now required” from that private sector is “to renovate itself and strike a new path of creative effort, not dependent, as in the past, on parasitic exploitation.”

The wolf is told to feed on grass! Private capital is asked not to exploit!

The experience of the last ten years seems to have proved to the leaders of “Arab socialism” that capitalists cannot produce but for profit. Therefore they are ready to provide them with “reasonable profit without exploitation.” But where does profit come from if not from exploitation?

In the field of agrarian reform, the Charter states that “The Arab application of socialism in the domain of agriculture does not believe in nationalizing the land and transforming it into the domain of public ownership. But from experience and study it believes in individual ownership of land, within limits that would not allow for feudalism.” “The revolutionary solution to the problem of land in Egypt is,” according to the authors of the Charter, “by increasing the number of land owners.”

We are told furthermore that the “socialist framework carefully set up by the July laws wiped out the vestiges of exploitation and left the door open to individual investment that would serve the general interest in the field of development. It would equally serve its owners by providing them with a reasonable profit without exploitation.”

One cannot deny that the reforms and nationalization measures passed by the new regime in Egypt and envisaged by the Charter are of great importance for the development of the country. But they are not yet socialism. Socialism is not merely nationalization. Socialism cannot be achieved without, first of all, the proletariat seizing power and crushing the old state machine. Nationalization as an economic basis for socialist planning should be without compensation. It is impossible to overthrow the rule of the capitalist class by paying them compensation for their nationalized property and leaving the door open for individual investment and “reasonable” profit.

But what, then, is the class nature of the new Egyptian state? What class is in power there?

The new Egyptian state is a capitalist state and the class in power there is the national bourgeoisie. It could be objected that the new state is nationalizing capitalist property and even persecutes individual capitalists. This is all true. But such measures are taken in the interests of the class as a whole. By “exploiting” capitalists, Nasser means individuals who put their interests above those of the class and who cannot be integrated into his plan of developing industry and the capitalist economy to advance the national bourgeoisie as a ruling class. Egypt is ruled by a bureaucracy which represents the interests of the national bourgeoisie. A bureaucracy in power is always the representative and servant of a class. This servant may sometimes sit on the shoulders of his master and spit in his face but he remains always a servant. Hitler, in spite of his drastic measures against individual German capitalists and in spite of his firm state control over the German economy, remained until the end a servant of German finance capital.

Nasser is not a new Hitler and the new regime in Egypt is not fascism. Hitler, representing highly developed finance capital in its decay, played a reactionary role. Nasser plays a progressive role as the representative of a semi-colonial national bourgeois class fighting against imperialism and for the realization of a bourgeois democratic revolution. In fact, Nasserism is not something altogether original. It is a mixture of Kemalism and Peronism in new and different circumstances.

At the time of Kemal Ataturk, imperialism was at its peak of strength while the Russian Revolution was inspiring the proletariat everywhere. The Turkish ruler could not stand the pressure on two fronts. Fear of the proletarian revolution forced him to compromise with imperialism and put an end to his reforms. Peron fell victim to an economic crisis. But Nasserism exists in an era of the weakening of imperialism and the strengthening of the workers states and the rise of the colonial revolution. Imperialism cannot show to the colonial and semi-colonial bourgeoisie its teeth and claws. The fear of a proletarian revolution in the colonies and the needs of the cold war with the workers states force imperialism to make every effort to win the bourgeoisie of the underdeveloped countries. At the same time, the Soviet Union gives utmost help to the same bourgeoisie in hope of keeping them neutral in the cold war. Nasser, playing the role of neutralism, wins help from both sides and utilizes this help to strengthen his regime.

Yet there is no alternative at present to his leadership in the Arab world. The Arab proletariat have not yet built a competent leadership. The Communist parties, with their treacherous policies, have lost almost all influence in the liberation movement. In the beginning they supported Nasser without reservation. After the unification of Egypt and Syria, especially after the Iraqi revolution, they made Nasser the main enemy, going so far as to join imperialist agents in a front against him. While Nasser raises the two main slogans cherished by the masses – socialism and national unity – they oppose both. While declaring that “Arab unity must be built upon complete liberation from imperialism,” they do not see the struggle for national unity as part and parcel of the struggle for the bourgeois democratic revolution. They advise the masses to wait for completion of liberation from imperialism before beginning the struggle for unity. As for socialist revolution, they think that the time and objective conditions are not yet ripe. Instead of socialism, they call for a national democratic state “which does not represent one certain class, but relies on the support of patriotic democratic groups, and which opens the way for a peaceful transition to socialism according to the conditions and national characteristics of our country.”

In this way the Communist parties in the Arab world have withdrawn from the liberation movement and are now struggling against Nasserism from outside. But revolutionary Marxists should not stand aside from this movement. They should be integrated in it, struggling from within for their own slogans of socialism and national unity. Their main struggle against its bourgeois leadership and for hegemony of the proletariat should be ideological in character. They should explain to the masses what real socialism is and what the role of the working class should be in the movement for socialism. They should make every effort to win the working class to their side and help it to win its independence.

Nasserism, in its present form, cannot live long. It is full of contradictions. It is trying to rely on both the national bourgeoisie and the working people. But the interests of opposing classes cannot be reconciled. Moreover the old ruling classes of landowners and comprador bourgeoisie are not altogether crushed. They are only waiting for an opportunity to launch an attack. A sharp economic crisis in the West would force imperialism to show its teeth and claws. The stoppage of foreign aid would push Egypt into a sharp economic crisis. The working masses would intensify their struggle. The Nasserist leadership would be forced to choose between relying on the working people inside and the workers states outside, and relying on the bourgeoisie inside and imperialism outside. It is not difficult to foresee what path it will choose. Only hegemony of the working class over the movement would save the conquests of the bourgeois revolution and push it forward into a proletarian revolution. This can be done only if the revolutionary Marxists succeed in penetrating the movement and conquering it from within.

February 4, 1963

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